On joyful crowds

You can’t remember when B heard that Napoleon had once called the English a nation of shopkeepers, but it made him laugh a lot.

He considers it very true. Take (he is wont to say) the average Anglican church service and compare it to the Orthodox one. Orthodox worship goes on and on and on. The Anglican genuflect lasts a scant hour. It wouldn’t do (says B) for the English to have to take too much time off from their family business. Can’t leave the shop unmanned for too long!

You think it is more noticeable whenever the UK tries to do public celebrations.

The British are supposed to have street parties, a la the Victory celebrations at the end of the Second World War. Or at least they are being strongly encouraged to. Community! Neighbourliness! Nostalgia! Very little for the authorities to do except allow residents to close their piddling little street for the day! Although woe betide you if you attempt to close a ‘strategically important location’ aka a High Street. Which is kind of the point.

Beaufort Place, off Roundhay Road, Leeds © Yorkshire Post Newspapers

You hope it does catch on. Certainly it all looks a lot more fun than the times you have toddled along to a central area on a high day and found everybody holidaying in a few small side streets or the pavements only of a busy main road. Given how the British love their personal space, their willingness to try to celebrate by shouting at full volume whilst having their nose in one person’s armpit, their bum gently rubbing against the butt cheeks of somebody else, and warm beer tipped down their collar never ceases to amaze you. It’s not fun, it’s loud, and you are constantly worried that the Star might disappear in the seething mass of humanity, or get pushed under a car.

The most spectacular example of this kind of celebratory fail came when you attended the switching on of the Christmas lights at your local High Street this year. You arrived to find five other spectators crammed up against some railings while commuters pushed past and heavy traffic entirely drowned out the small choir who were perched on a smaller platform placed in the middle of a busy T-junction. You missed the actual countdown, and the minor celebrity who was pushing the button got the name of the area you live in wrong (“Hello Edinburgh! Or Glasgow rather!”). There was a prolonged squirt of artificial snow, but after the Star had been growled at a few times by people tripping over him while trying to get home to their tea when he tried to dance in it, you gave up and went home.

The thing is, you got used to a certain ruthless approach to national holidays back in Moscow. The whole centre of the city would be shut down so that people could take to the streets, listen to music, drink and so on. This has got firmly stuck in your head as the Model for such affairs and every. Single. Time you attend the British version you are taken aback anew at how paltry the affair is.

But of course the mere thought of shutting down large swathes of the capital for something as unimportant as having fun is out of the question. It is already obligatory for the news to run stories about how much business, in pounds sterling, has been lost to the UK’s coffers every bank holiday, and doubtless you will get a double dose of this next month when the UK gets not one but two days off to wave flags for the Queen. And as the Olympics get closer, you are confidently expecting the current trickle of articles about how the disruption will devastate small businesses to increase to a defining roar. Someone in the Conservative party will probably try to blame the next dip in the recession on it, in fact.

This annoys you.

But you were saddened today while watching Vladimir Putin’s reinauguration as President of the Russian Federation by the sight of deserted streets for the entirety of his drive to the Kremlin.

Now you are not anti-Putin. Never have been. Your opinion over the last ten years has been closer to this man’s. Russia in the 90s was a mess. No-one got paid (assuming they had jobs), the ruble collapsed, you were a couple of hundred metres away from a fatal hit not once but twice. Western commentators were calling it an ‘oligarchy’, not a ‘democracy’ because of the influence of the people who had become billionaires off the back of the asset stripping frenzy that went on at the beginning of the decade. Putin and his government brought stability to the country and gained a measure of control over the powerful businessmen. Soon the Western press was calling it a ‘managed democracy’. The country started to work again. 100% of your friends back home have thrived under his time in office. They’ve got jobs, started families, bought property, got promoted, gone on holiday to Egypt every summer, become, in short, fairly distinctively middle class, and that, frankly, wasn’t something you would have put money on back in the day.

You think, actually, that he should be proud that people are comfortable enough to look around them now and say, that’s not enough. Corruption, particularly electoral corruption, isn’t what we deserve. And proud that people are confident enough to actually get out there and protest about it.

You were disappointed, though, when you heard that he was going to stand for president again. Of course, he won that election and by and large all sides agree that he did, in fact, win it. There isn’t, really, anyone else to vote for. Whether or not this is actually Putin’s fault is a matter for debate.

Still, while you are irritated by the British habit of sticking to the letter rather than the spirit of the rules at times, and while you are not always particularly fussed by some creative bending of those rules, you are upset at the implication that Putin is so far above the little people he holds sway over that it seems perfectly rational to shut down and shut off the whole of the centre of  the capital city and keep its people out just so that a car can be driven from a to b as part of what everybody hopes will be a reasonably regular ceremony. Not a 60th anniversary, a six year one. A ceremony that should be for the people who chose him, not about the man.

I mean, was that really necessary? No-one is that important. Not even the Queen.


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